Late one night, a sleepless child was pressing his mother for a bedtime tale. The irritated mother told him he should wait for his father to be home soon when “he will tell you a story and he will also tell me one!”
Like that shrewd man art has many tales to tell, in different versions to different people. Yet the truth is not conveyed completely, because in essence art is about the search for truth. Art in a sense is a collective dream in which impossible becomes real, and incredible turns believable.
Wardha Shabbir’s work also exists on the threshold of reality and fantasy. Flying fish with women’s faces, raven-like large crows, a tree growing out of a heart or on top of a winged whale, winged horses with horns and a man’s head, a huge bird with claws stuck to its shoulders and a body crowded with all kinds of creatures, a man with a parrot’s face and two horns, an animal with two heads, a beast covered in a transparent tunic are all part of her recent work in her solo exhibition Of Trees and Other Beings at Rohtas 2, Lahore.
The artist’s choice of such images is a means to construct a world that exists parallel to our familiar territory and occasionally enters our mundane reality.
There is a contrast between what is viewed with the eyes open and what is perceived through dream, fantasy and imagination. Reality is never constructed in objective terms because every narrative depends upon the customs and norms of its culture and epoch. During the middle ages, the account of meeting a fairy or a witch was considered as honest as today’s information on encountering a beauty queen or a banker. One wonders how our contemporary chronicles would be considered in the future.
In the art of Indian miniature painting as well as the literary tradition, reality was rendered in a complex manner in which observation, dream and desire intermingle. It created a narrative that can even illustrate the present culture that, despite using most modern gadgets, still subscribes to superstitions of all sorts. For a society that belongs to the first half of twenty-first century but is occupied with the myths of ancient times, stories from The Thousand and One Nights are as valid as the news from print or electronic media. These people are not different from those who admired the adventures of protagonists travelling to unknown lands and meeting ogres and djinns.
In Wardha Shabbir’s work, this world of impossible comes alive as we come across entities which may belong to the folklore but also reside in the depth of our psyche and unconscious.
These characters are not only exotic and extraordinary figures, they allude to our contemporary conditions. Shabbir uses references from history and accumulates a bag of metaphors which delineate the situation of a world fragmented by the position of power, especially oppression against women and minorities, coloured people as well population from less-developed countries.
In her miniatures which on the surface recall strange beings from the past, the relationship of politics and gender can be deciphered through some specific points/pictures. Hence, a hairy figure inside a burka-like transparent clock.
Animals either combinations of multiple species or composed of various characters, like the winged entity with claws and beak is constructed entirely of green leaves which resemble fish scales. The inner body of the bird-figure contains a variation on landscape with rain, clouds, trees, groves, streams, flying fish, animal-headed humans, heart and hedges. This scenario suggests how a living being is a compilation of various elements: from memory, fear, experiences. It also alludes to old tales; through the magic of story-telling, supernatural become tangible and one is often frightened by its presence.
Like the work of great novelists in which characters move from one book to next, the pictorial elements of Wardha Shabbir appear in different settings in her 13 works on display. If the clouds are rendered immaculately in a number of works on paper, these also pass swiftly in her two videos installed as two peepholes on the wall of the gallery. Similarly, the large fish can be seen in multiple works along with the view of an imaginary landscape.
Painted in a remarkable manner, this ‘landscape’ (as there may not be any other term to describe it) is essentially an internal scenario rooted in myths and fables and the history of image-making in the subcontinent. Wardha Shabbir approaches this tradition with a vision that investigates aspects such as conceptual, technical and pictorial. One is impressed by her skill in rendering details but, at the same instance, she experiments with the form and genre of miniature art. Thus multiple visuals are composed and then surrounded with hordes of dragonflies not only in individual paintings, her scheme of display also reinforces the idea of being inside an extraordinary world.
She has opened up the traditional territory of miniature painting and extended it across the walls of the gallery. Thus birds, trees and dragonflies migrate from painted papers to painted surfaces of the gallery space. In her previous show at the same venue, Shabbir had transformed the place by covering it with real grass and natural flowers and plants, but in the current exhibition the space is modified through painted marks, drawings, and videos, seen through tiny holes.
The layout of the display makes the whole exhibition seem like one installation, where paintings hung on different levels are points to ponder in that personal, strange and superb realm — of art, life and imagination.